Arizona's main COVID lab running behind as demand for tests soars to twice capacity

(Reuters) - A spike in coronavirus infections in Arizona pushed demand for tests to twice the capacity of the state’s main COVID lab last week, a senior laboratory executive said, adding that new testing equipment had been delayed two months.

FILE PHOTO: Tests are laid out for the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) as a part of Valle del Sol’s testing at Tolleson Fire Department Station 161 in Tolleson, Arizona, U.S. June 18, 2020. REUTERS/Courtney Pedroza/File Photo

Testing to find the virus before patients spread it further is key to controlling the pandemic, especially as lockdowns lift. The Arizona delays - in testing and results reporting - are similar to problems seen earlier in the epidemic, and some labs across the country are facing shortages of supplies, an industry group said.

In Arizona, Roche Holding recently told Sonora Quest lab, a joint venture between Phoenix-based Banner Health and Quest Diagnostics, that a new instrument it had hoped to get in June would not be delivered until August, said Sonora Chief Operating Officer Sonya Engle.

“The testing demand has increased significantly,” said Engle, whose lab is responsible for approximately 80% of Arizona COVID-19 tests. “We have reached record highs each day in the past couple weeks.”

On Friday, she said, the lab received a record 12,000 test orders, double its capacity. It is aiming to ramp up to 17,000 a day but is still working on a deal with a new supplier to make that possible.

Roche said in response to a request from Reuters that it has been ramping up production since March and is committed to delivering as many tests as possible to the most affected areas, including Arizona.

“At the height of this global pandemic, demand for diagnostic tests and the instruments to conduct them continues to outstrip supply,” the company said on Tuesday in a statement.

Last week the American Association for Clinical Chemistry, which represents clinical lab workers and researchers, wrote to Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus task force response coordinator, urging her to “use the authority of the federal government to obtain and allocate these vital supplies.”

In a May survey of 100 labs, 50% said they continued to have difficulty getting the swabs, reagents or test kits they needed, according to the letter, which has not been published previously.

The White House referred questions to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which did not immediately respond.

Arizona, Florida and Texas are all experiencing record surges in new infections, according to a Reuters analysis. Arizona reported 17,000 new cases last week, a 90% increase, with 20% of tests coming back positive.

The major suppliers to U.S. labs, including Roche and Abbott, sell both lab equipment and proprietary chemicals called reagent kits that are specific to their equipment. When reagent runs low, labs generally cannot switch suppliers.

In recent days, some free testing sites in Arizona have had to turn patients away because of rising demand, according to local media reports. The Arizona Republic reported that some people had waited as long as 13 hours at one site in Phoenix on Saturday.

Engle said patients have waited five to six days for results, up from two to three days in May.

Reporting by Allison Martell in Toronto; Additional reporting by John Miller in Zurich and Alexandra Alper in Washington; editing by Peter Henderson and Dan Grebler